The charter talking point of the week was believing in charter schools and charter school students, and it suggests that at some point Franz Kafka and George Orwell had a love child who went into the PR biz.
Charter boosters are outraged-- outraged!!-- that anyone would criticize or question their success, because that must mean that those critics believe that poor African-American students are victims of their circumstances and these critics don't believe that such students can succeed. But charter schools do believe. They believe in all students. Now, here's a completion sentence. Can you finish it?
Because charter school operators believe that all students succeed, they work hard to serve_______.
If you said "all students," you lose, because most modern students are not devoted to serving all students at all. They will serve the chosen few, the students that they consider worthy of being saved.
They will brag about 100% college acceptance rates, when what they should be bragging about is their ability to winnow a group down to only those students they were sure they could prep for college.
"What are you saying," they will reply. "Are you saying that those students we got ready for college couldn't really succeed?"
Of course not. That group of students, however small, represents a real success. And if I were the parent of one of those students, that success would mean the world to me. It's like the old starfish story; any success is a Good Thing, particularly to the person who succeeds.
But there are two problems with this kind of charter success story.
One is that it is not replicable. All that these charter success stories prove is what every public school teacher already knows-- any school that gets to pick and choose its own students body can be hugely successful. And it's not just picking and choosing the quality of the student body-- I just got a new student in my classroom two weeks ago, and that's not unusual. Charters that fight hard not to have to backfill empty seats never have to deal with students who start partway through the year. Charters that advertise for students and families who want a tough, challenging education get few applicants who hate that idea.
I am not saying that charter schools are evil and wrong for using many techniques for getting the student body they want. I am saying that the success they achieve by doing so is not replicable. Public schools cannot do it. We must take all comers.
In public schools, we do not have the luxury of gathering only the sorts of students we can easily believe in. We take them all.
The other problem is that school funding is currently a zero sum game. When charters take some students away from public schools, they take some of the resources that could have been used to serve the students that they left behind.
Imagine firemen showing up to a burning house. There are a hundred children trapped inside, and the fire chief announces that every one of those children deserves to be saved. But instead of saving them all, he gets handful out of the building, and he does it by having the other trapped children lie down so that the saved children can walk out on their backs.
This is not the charter schools' fault. It's the result of dishonest school funding policies. The honest solution is to fully fund all schools. If policymakers want a robust charter system, fund it. Sell it to the taxpayers, and explain why it's necessary that every time a charter school is opened, taxes must go up. Stop selling charters with the financial fiction that you can operate two homes, two businesses, two cars, or two schools for exactly the same cost as one.
But until a more honest funding policy is implemented (I expect it roughly when there's a hockey league in Hell), charter rhetoric about belief in all students is hollow. Charters believe in some students, and the rest of the students that they don't believe in they just avoid having to face or teach. Those they leave to the same public schools they are stripping of resources.
It doesn't have to be that way. Read, for instance, this rather encouraging interview with a KIPP leader from Philly (who at least seems to know what he should be doing).
But in the meantime, if Believe Is All You Need cheerleaders want me to take them seriously when they criticize educators for bring up factors like poverty and resources and funding, they can prove their point very easily. Just follow these simple steps:
1) Take a truly random assortment of students from the community in which they're located.
2) Commit to keeping those students for the long haul, no matter what.
3) For funding, accept only 30% of the cost-per-pupil figure for the local district.
I think I've been clear about what I believe about believing. But if you're going to claim that belief is all any of us in education need, then show me how it's done.